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Judge refuses new trial for Kansas City, Kansas, cousins despite ‘cloud of doubt’ around Golubsk

 Celester McKinney, 52, (left) and Brian Betts, 46, during an October hearing in the Wyandotte County Courthouse. They are seeking a new trial on their 1997 murder convictions.
Peggy Lowe
KCUR 89.3
Celester McKinney, 52, (left) and Brian Betts, 46, during an October hearing in the Wyandotte County Courthouse. They are seeking a new trial on their 1997 murder convictions.

The case of Celester McKinney and Brian Betts is much like that of Lamonte McIntyre, another young KCK Black man who was allegedly railroaded into prison by former KCKPD Detective Roger Golubski.

A Wyandotte County judge on Wednesday refused two Kansas City, Kansas, cousins a new trial for a 1997 murder conviction despite "this new cloud of doubt" surrounding a disgraced police detective.

Brian Betts and Celester McKinney had hoped for a new trial based on the allegations brought to light by the exoneration of another KCK man, Lamonte McIntyre.

Judge Gunnar Sundby said he didn't believe the testimony of the cousins' uncle, who testified that former KCKPD Detective Roger Golubski coerced him into identifying Betts and McKinney as the shooters of a 17-year-old in 1997.

"It would be easy, under this new cloud of doubt cast about Mr. Golubski, to use that as leverage to secure relief from conviction," Sundby said. "I do not find his testimony to be credible."

Sundby, who is retired, has been overseeing the case in a senior judge role.

Ellen Betts, the mother of Brian Betts, said although the family was hoping for a victory, they are going to appeal the decision and "press on."

"We just gotta stay strong," she said. "The battle is not over."

During a two-day hearing in October, Betts, 46, and McKinney, 52, both testified that they are innocent and have been wrongfully imprisoned for 25 years.

Betts said he was at home, asleep with his girlfriend and child when 17-year-old Gregory Miller was killed about 3:30 a.m. on December 29, 1997. McKinney, too, said he was home sleeping. Both men said they had no firearms or motive to kill Miller.

Carter Betts, an uncle to both men, said he was forced to falsely testify that his nephews had confessed to the murder of 17-year-old Gregory Miller because Golubski and another detective told him that if he didn’t do as he was told, “I’m gonna make you suffer.” Betts originally didn't remember Golubski's name, but identified him in a photo.

Betts and McKinney had to prove that Golubski was, in fact, one of the two detectives who threatened Carter Betts and made him give false testimony. Golubski's name doesn't appear in case records the Wyandotte County District Attorney's office turned over, but the other detective, a Black man named W.K. Smith, is in the files.

Several former members of the KCKPD testified at the October hearing that Golubski routinely partnered with Smith and that Golubski was known for his distinctive mustache.

"Interestingly, while the State suggested the second detective could also have been Magnum P.I, no other white KCKPD detective with a mustache was named by any witness as possible alternative to Golubski as the second detective with W.K. Smith," Sarah Swain, McKinney's lawyer, wrote in her motion for a new trial.

Betts’ and McKinney’s case is reminiscent of that of Lamonte McIntyre, who was exonerated in 2017 for a double homicide he didn’t commit. He, too, was allegedly railroaded by Golubski, thanks to the false testimony of two eyewitnesses. Like Betts, those eyewitnesses later recanted and said they were coerced by the detective.

Much like the McIntyre case, police never recovered the weapons or any physical evidence and failed to document much of their work in the Betts-McKinney case. There are claims of coercion of witnesses and, also similar to the McIntyre case, there are suggestions that Golubski was protecting a local drug dealer.

Asked during the first day of Betts’ and McKinney’s hearing in October whether he had a history of pressuring witnesses into false testimony, Golubski, who was under oath, replied: “never.” He also said he had no role in investigating Miller’s murder, though Betts’ and McKinney’s attorneys say he did. He also denied any connection to Miller's family, despite the fact that he had been married to Miller’s aunt.

Golubski is out on house arrest while he faces federal charges of violating the civil rights of two women by raping and kidnapping them in the 1990s. The Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, settled McIntyre’s federal civil case for $12.5 million.

Although community members have supported Betts and McKinney, holding vigils outside the Wyandotte County Courthouse, Miller’s family feels strongly that the two men are guilty.

“They just murdered him,” Ethel Miller said outside the courtroom in October. “They need to do their time.”

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Peggy Lowe joined Harvest Public Media in 2011, returning to the Midwest after 22 years as a journalist in Denver and Southern California. Most recently she was at The Orange County Register, where she was a multimedia producer and writer. In Denver she worked for The Associated Press, The Denver Post and the late, great Rocky Mountain News. She was on the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of Columbine. Peggy was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan in 2008-09. She is from O'Neill, the Irish Capital of Nebraska, and now lives in Kansas City. Based at KCUR, Peggy is the analyst for The Harvest Network and often reports for Harvest Public Media.